Wrestling as a sport is extremely popular in rural Delhi and neighbouring Haryana. Even though the venue of Pro Wrestling League—Season 3 is in far away South Delhi, its popularity has not abated. Personal rivalries and innovative rules have added spice to the tournament, which is being held at the Siri Fort Sports complex. Bus loads of supporters come daily, cheering for their favourite grapplers and teams. The six participating franchises compete in a round-robin league, with the top four teams reaching the semifinal. Each franchise has a squad of nine grapplers, five men and four women.
An innovative rule is the toss before the start of each bout. Just as in cricket, the toss between the captains can be decisive. The winner of the toss has a choice to block any player, male or female of their opponents except the icon on that particular day. The captain who has lost the toss also has a choice to block one player from the opposing team. However, the blocked player has to be of the opposite gender.
For instance, on day four, Delhi Sultans took on runners-up of the last two editions, Haryana Hammers. The skipper of Delhi Sultans won the toss and promptly blocked Haryana’s 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Georgia in the 57kg category. The Haryana team then decided to prevent Delhi’s woman grappler in the 76kg category, Samar Hamza of Egypt, African championship gold medallist in 2015 and 2016, from participating.
This clever rule leads to a lot of brainstorming and strategy discussion between the captain of each franchise and their coach and adviser. No grappler can be blocked in successive matches. So, this rule has transformed this team championship event in wrestling into a game of chess because there is a lot of planning involved in who to block. Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, captain of Mumbai Maharathi, believes the toss is the most crucial factor in deciding the outcome of a match.
Though wrestling is an individual sport, the format of this league makes members of each franchise think like a team. As Geeta Phogat, representing UP Dangal, says, “We forget friendships and even family relations when competing as a team.” Geeta and her cousin, the 23-year-old Vinesh, represent UP Dangal.
When they will take on Delhi Sultans on January 15, Geeta’s precocious youngest sister, 19-year-old Sangeeta Phogat, will be with the opposition. Geeta said that on that day they will be professionals on the mat and sisterly feelings will go out of the window. Instead, she and Vinesh will be helping their franchise’s 57kg wrestler Vanesa Kaladzinskya of Belarus, a 2017 World and European championship gold medallist, win.
The composition of each franchise keeps changing annually depending on the auction. However, the spirit of teamwork is imbibed in each grappler. For instance, Georgia’s Vladimir Khinchegashvili of Haryana Hammers is normally a grappler in the 65kg category. However, his team management wanted him to fight in a lower weight category. So, he spent long sessions running, had sauna baths and ate less to compete in the 57kg category (with two kilogrammes weight allowance).
The league is a team sport and hosts Delhi Sultans and neighbouring Haryana Hammers have the maximum support. However, there are some great rivalries, which create a gladiatorial like atmosphere in the ring and create a thrill for the spectators. For instance, the costliest wrestler in the league, double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, is yet to compete for Delhi Sultans. Sushil, who was picked for Rs 55 lakh, is on a competitive comeback since November 2017. The packed stadium on the first day of the league was disappointed as Sushil’s category was blocked by Malik.
His next big bout was to be against Kethik Tsabolov of Russia (representing Haryana Hammers) on day four of the league. However, the crowd was disappointed again as Sushil backed out of the bout citing a knee injury. The bout everyone wants to see is Sushil Kumar against Parveen Rana of Veer Marathas. There is animosity between the two grapplers after Sushil defeated Parveen in a trial for the Commonwealth Games and a subsequent brawl between their supporters. Veer Marathas take on Delhi Sultans on January 21 and Sushil versus Parveen Rana bout promises to be the most watched event of the Pro Wrestling League.
There are other interesting sub plots, too. After marriage, Geeta Phogat, the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, has moved up from 57kg to 62kg. So, when UP Dangal met Mumbai Maharathi, Geeta took on Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik in a battle for supremacy. It was a bout between the reigning queen and the rising star of women’s wrestling in India.
The ultimate rivalry will be when UP Dangal meet Haryana Hammers on the last day of the league matches, that is January 21. The feisty and hyperactive Vinesh will clash with 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sun Yanan of China. In the Rio Olympics, Vinesh had conceded her bout to Sun Yanan due to a knee injury. Vinesh, the captain of UP Dangal, who was bought for Rs 40 lakh, has a score to settle.
Besides the renowned Indian grapplers, there are some classy international competitors, whose moves are appreciated by the large crowds. There is Helen Maroulis (USA), Rio Olympics gold medallist and 2015 and 2017 World Champion in the 57kg category, the gigantic Jamaladdin Magomedov (Azerbaijan) in the 125-plus weight category, a Rio Olympics gold medallist, Koumba Larroque (France), the rising star of women’s wrestling and U-23 world championships gold medallist, and Khinchegashvilli. There are also several classy grapplers from Russia and other east European nations.